The importance of the Battle for Paul Bunyan

The first thing a Michigan fan will tell you is that their rivalry with Michigan State doesn’t matter as much as the game against Ohio State. They’ll say that the last decade is an anomaly to the truth of decades of dominance in the all-time series, which Michigan leads 68-35 with 5 ties. But from what happened Saturday, I can tell you that game mattered. A lot.

The Wolverines faithful had full confidence going into Saturday. I could see it in their eyes as they walked into the Big House, I could hear it in their words, each gloating to another that they knew Michigan would win this game from the moment they hired Harbaugh. This was the game that would bring Michigan back to glory and set up a classic matchup against Ohio State on November 28. Until it wasn’t.

I was in the student section Saturday afternoon and I’ll never forget that day. 111,000 fans packed in at Michigan Stadium were reduced to absolute silence in an instant. I remember just before the kick students asked each other if they should rush the field when it ended. “Only if Harbaugh allows it,” one said. And then it happened. A low snap, a bobbled reception by the punter, then a perfect kick into the chest of a player in green and white. It all happened so fast it’s difficult to remember. Students kept looking to the jumbotron to confirm if what they had seen was actually true, if they had in fact lost. The replay never came, and all that could be heard were the Spartans’ cries of joy from the field. In the stands, you either stood paralyzed and watched or left as soon as possible. I chose the former, realizing that I will never see another game like that. All you could do was smile as a bystander, almost laugh in disbelief.

Others didn’t take it as well. “Physical pain,” one student said. “A strong kick to the gut.” Cheers of “Go Green” followed by the response of “Go White” echoed through the quiet, dark streets of Ann Arbor while fans donning the maize and blue were forced to analyze the play and remember those decades of dominance. But there is nothing to analyze. How could there be? It wasn’t a strategic success of Michigan State on that play or an error in coaching by Michigan. The game came down to a single play, a mistake by perhaps Michigan’s strongest defensive player on the day.

The Battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy is hardly ever without controversy or drama and last Saturday was no different. Though both sides will never be happy after a meeting, it’s getting harder and harder to refute it as the most important rivalry for either team, at least for the fans. The Spartans and Wolverines will argue that given the success of Ohio State, each team’s game against the Buckeyes is most important. However, college football is nothing if not for earning bragging rights. Beating Ohio State may be fun and important in the grand scheme of the season, but what’s the point if you can’t beat your neighbor or even your brother.

Michigan-Michigan State divides families, friends, and neighbors, if only for a day. It dominates the media. Dress codes in schools and offices are thrown out for the Friday before. Everyone wears their maize and blue or green and white, even if you never attended either school. Everyone picks a side and there is nothing worse nor better than walking in Monday knowing you won. So here’s to the Paul Bunyan Trophy and to the hope for a better game next year.

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